NASA explores the cloud with Nebula

Home-grown cloud computing environment designed to let outside scientists contribute

Performing climate modeling and simulation via a software service is not NASA's only effort to facilitate collaboration with outside scientists and researchers. The agency also has launched a cloud computing pilot project, called Nebula, that uses open-source components hosted in a containerized data center to create a self-service for high-capacity computing, storage and network connectivity.

The primary container is located at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and hosted on the Ames Internet Exchange. The AIX, formerly the Mae West Internet node, is a major peering location for Tier 1 Internet service providers and also houses the Internet’s E root servers. The goal of Nebula is to take advantage of the economies of scale offered by cloud computing, giving researchers quick access to a scalable, high-performance infrastructure while also sharing data with the public.


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NASA built its own cloud because no commercially available service met its needs for high bandwidth and compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act. The Nebula environment is FISMA-compliant and has the advantage of creating one platform for resources that might otherwise have been housed on a variety of systems, thus reducing vulnerability to attackers. Although it is secure, Nebula houses only publicly available data and no sensitive information.

The architecture is designed to be interoperable with commercial services so that researchers can share datasets and code for commercial offerings. NASA’s legal department is working to ensure that contributors’ code is covered by a licensing agreement that would allow Nebula to be recognized as open source.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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